Even as I turn the pages of Deep Halder and Avishek Biswas’s new work, Being Hindu in Bangladesh, my mind is forced to recall certain portions from Sandra Petersmann and Hans Christian Ostermann’s documentary, Bangladesh: The Dawn of Islamism produced by Deutsche Welle, the German broadcaster. There is a sense of déjà vu as I read the questions posed by the authors challenging Bangladesh’s stance on being a secular state because these probes were made in the film, too! And this query is getting even more crucial with every passing day as ‘secularism’ simply becomes a word on paper while Islamic fundamentalism grips the country created after a history of bloodshed, broken homes but bearing the promise of a prosperous land with equal rights for those who made it their nest. As the cloud of excessive intolerance looms large over it today owing to the majority population (aided and abetted by those who use religion as a discriminating and diving tool) establishing how Bangladesh is more Islamic than Bangla, what exactly does the future hold for the land and its excessively persecuted minority, the Hindus.
The authors traverse Bangladesh, the country of their ancestors and dwell into its Hindu connect mainly in the areas tucked away from the gaze of the world media, dipping their pen into a vial of memories, nostalgia as well as hard-hitting facts of Hindu genocide and exodus during the 1971 war when West Pakistan bludgeoned East Pakistan to stifle its resistance against the imposition of Urdu over Bangla, and most importantly to cull out the Hindu populace from the land for good. While the past narratives are unsettling, infuriating and deeply disturbing, one is again triggered to reflect how in the Muslim majority country, Hindus (also atheists and other religious outsiders) are forced to exist in anonymity. Their fears result from an uptick in violent executions at the hands of intolerant radicals. The victims are often those who are openly critical of this extremist violence and of the Muslim leadership that they claim promotes it because of their failure in curbing it.
While the limelight focuses on Dhaka and its glossy, privileged precincts, the average Hindu in towns and villages that no travel agency in the country will include in its itinerary, is constantly fighting to not just be heard but also for survival. There are accounts of Hindu women raped, Hindu men killed and their temples and idols desecrated as Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s dream for Bangladesh is getting squashed bit by bit as the land slips into a zombie slumber of Islamic radicalism, bigotry and murderous pursuits that is more than a death knell to the rich socio-cultural heritage of the land and its people. The extensive research pooled in by the authors unravels not just incriminating evidence against the cruelty unleashed by West Pakistan against Hindus and East Pakistanis who opposed their dictatorial might but also the ground situation after the horrific October 2021 anti-Hindu riots.
This page turner packs in piquant episodes from the past and correlates them with the present to justify how the skepticism of the average Hindu is not unfounded. The Hindu pogrom and carnage of 1971 might not have taken place in 2021 but what is the guarantee that the axe will not fall soon on the neck of the minority whose population is steadily declining in the land? Juxtaposing bare facts and figures with real accounts of lived experiences, Being Hindu in Bangladesh becomes a poignant yet telling reminder to the world of what the Hindu has faced over the years and sadly is continuously pummelling with. Just that his voice isn’t offered a mic to be amplified! If ‘dara hua musalmaan’ is indeed a reality in India, it is thoroughly amusing why such a victim card isn’t flashed by the dwindling Hindus of Bangladesh whose lives are incessantly hanging by a tight leash. The orchestrated hypocrisy is just too blatant now.
Constitutionally, the country proclaims a devotion to secularism, but the reality on the ground tells a different story. Like we saw in the DW documentary, a father expresses his frustrations over the refusal of authorities to seek justice in his child’s murder; the assistant to the Prime Minister places blame on the secularist bloggers who instigate their own demise by freely sharing their views, an instructor at a mosque bemoans the fact that Muslims are hastily accused of such violence when figures of different religious affiliations remain blameless for committing similar acts of intolerance; Halder and Biswas’s impeccable penmanship brings forth several instances to reveal the rampant miscarriage of human rights and justice to the wronged Hindu.
There are people monkey-balancing as well to prove that the Hindu-Muslim brotherhood remains untarnished in the country where Awami League’s Sheikh Hasina is persistently trying to reinstate her father’s ideals for Bangladesh. But when you hear the wave of intolerance sweeping over, doubts surmount despite the reassurance. Testimonies from Rafiath Rashid Mithila, Bengali film director Srijit Mukherjee’s Bangladeshi wife, negate such fake reassurance.
While the writers balance the reportage with thorough footage into the polity as well the socio-cultural skeleton of the land, they pepper the narrative with ample historical anecdotes of important personalities who shaped Bangladesh’s existence so that the reader is able to travel in time easily. If popular names add weight to the narration, interactions and interviews with diverse people from various parts of Bangladesh affirm the voice of the questions posed. Facts, figures, and empirical evidence, however, do not dry up the work as the human element is retained with pertinent imagery and the intent to make the reader empathise with what the Hindu has faced and is continuously facing with each passing day. The book outlines the troubled history of the country and the long-standing disputes between the Islamist and secularist populations.
This antagonistic relationship is quickly approaching its breaking point. Bangladesh is undergoing a crisis of identity. The wrongs and provocations against the Hindu living there in ignominy are likely to continue until the political powers-that-be exercise strength and clarity in addressing the issues and rectify them in a firm and official capacity instead of just engaging in verbal and tactical pow-wows. Some argue that the country should be grounded in Islamic law to represent the majority. Others defend their right to practice any belief they chose, and worry that such a proclamation would place their freedoms and their lives at greater risk. Who or what will resolve these debates on which Hindu lives depend?
Why hasn’t the world objected to the degradation in basic human rights of Hindus in Bangladesh? Why are rapes still being used as a tool to suppress, to settle scores, to unleash terror, and to rob young women of a chance to a promising future? Why are they still at the mercy of fundamental Islamic fiends? Why are Hindus being hacked, hewed and pressurized to make do with disrobed lives brimming with indignity in a land they embraced as mother? What about the promises of equality, compassion, freedom, and of basic necessities? If words have not been kept, then how has Bangladesh indeed been the land Bangabandhu dreamt of establishing? And if the Muslim majority, channelling extremist principles, want it to be Islamic and not secular, can the Hindu and Muslim brotherhood in Bangladesh sustain in the near future? Won’t Kaji Nazrul Islam’s Mora Eki Brinte Dooti Kusum Hindu Musalman be rendered completely flaky and flawed!